The role of intrinsic vs. extrinsic employee appreciation
This is broadly a good place to start any discussion on employee appreciation ideas. Any attempts to appreciate an employee -- whether you want to call that employee experience, employee engagement, employee appreciation, employee respect, or just leadership (your choice!) -- can fall into one of two buckets.
The extrinsic bucket is fairly obvious. Pay them more, give them better benefits, give them more time off, give them a deeper incentive structure, etc. Any extrinsic employee appreciation ideas tend to be tied to the accrual of more money or time.
But then there’s a whole bucket, and a whole bucket of research, around intrinsic employee appreciation ideas. In these cases, you don’t necessarily provide additional money or opportunities at a bonus structure, but you provide strong leadership, team-building activities, and a generally strong, healthy culture. Those are not easy to do, no — companies have been struggling with intrinsic motivators for employees for generations — but you can find some ideas and approaches at those links. In this post, however, we’ll go a bit deeper on specific ideas to appreciate and encourage your team.
Before we get to the list, let’s take two quick stops around this “intrinsic employee appreciation ideas” concept.
The first stop is with Dan Pink. If you’re already familiar with this intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation divide, you’ve probably heard that name before. He has one of the more popular TED Talks of all-time, “The Puzzle of Motivation,” which dates back to 2009 — as we were coming off another financial crisis and companies were struggling with how to get the right people when belts were tighter than usual.
Pink’s core argument is that social scientists have understood for generations that intrinsic motivators and appreciation often matters more than extrinsic incentives, but corporate managers often do not readily see that. (This is due, in part, to a chasm between “academic thinking” and “business thinking.”) Pink’s ideas, subsequently laid out in his book Drive, have notched a few points for intrinsic appreciation and motivation.
Now, also quickly think of something as seemingly basic as job role and definition. When a job is created, or someone new comes into an organization, what do they actually do all day, all week, and all month? Do they overlap with other roles? Is the role clear? There has been some research on the idea of “employee total motivation,” and lo and behold, the No. 1 determining factor therein is job role and design:
In short, as Harvard Business Review said in 2017: the more essential your job role is, the happier and more productive you will be. “Essential,” eh? That’s a word coming up a lot recently, and we’re mostly using it to describe food and transportation employees.
But what if we could create better jobs, with clear roles and lines of sight, such that most jobs within an organization were “essential?” That right there might be the biggest employee appreciation idea and motivator of them all: have people come to work every day (or log-in remotely) and feel like they’re working on something that matters and that they have some ownership of.
Bam. We just gave you one big idea. Now let’s get to 37 or so more.
Employee appreciation ideas, large and small
We will work through these one at a time. Some require a bit more execution, some a bit less. We’re happy to help discuss or coordinate anything you are trying in your office. Almost all can be executed remotely within the current global moment; if it’s hard to execute remotely, we note that within the section.
1 - Birthdays
This is a pretty obvious one, and it means a lot to people. If you use Slack or some other comms tool, create a channel (a bot can usually do the notifications) and plug in everyone’s birthday. Seems simple, and is, but it’s also very powerful in both directions — we know someone who started a new job in August, and his birthday was in November. When November came, there was no notification of his birthday in the Slack channel, and no one decorated his desk (as was common at this org). He quit before EOY, and that birthday context did factor in.
2 - Employee of the Month
Do this every month, and have other employees vote and nominate their peers. If you have a visually-inclined person in-house, have them design a fun poster about the winner.
3 - Employee “Belt” / Trophy
In the National Football League, a bunch of the tight ends have a faux championship belt they send around to a new person each week based on performance. You can do this internally and remotely as well — it can be sent to the Employee of the Month every month, or it can be weekly/monthly based on another metric like learning engagements, sales, praise from clients/co-workers, etc.
4 - Shout-Out Board
Take a large (six feet or more wide) piece of paper/tear paper and pin it to a wall in your main office. Also make a digital version on a comms channel or shared space, i.e. Google Docs. Encourage people, IRL, to stop by and write kudos to teammates on the paper. Online, they can write kudos in the shared docs. Every week or two weeks, celebrate those who’ve received kudos since the last celebration.
5 - Learning Fridays
Trello does this and calls it “Coffee Talks.” Basically, employees come together and one employee educates the others on something completely non-work-related, i.e. Shakespeare, Drake, video games, or anything else. You get to learn about a coworker in ways you hadn’t before. They get to feel appreciated for showing off some of their personal/hobby knowledge. Everybody wins! Do it on Friday afternoons, in-person or virtually, when less work tends to happen anyway, and it’s a great way to close the week.
6 - Speaking of Fridays
At the Friday check-in / standup / whip-around / Kanban / whatever you call it, have a senior leader call for kudos and employee appreciation from others. Let it run for about five minutes — not overkill, but enough to see a bunch of people recognized by peers. Make sure the recognition is not revenue-driven, i.e. sales wins. Make sure some of it is more intrinsic or just about respectful, timely treatment of clients.
7 - Personalization
As part of your onboarding process, when someone new starts with you, ask them how they like to be appreciated and recognized. Not everyone likes public displays of appreciation; it makes some people feel nervous and small. So get a handle on everyone’s personal take. With the free F4S assessment you can measure and track each of your team members’ individual motivations so you can make sure your efforts are effective.
8 - Thank You Notes
Write them. Quick, small, but hand-written. Not email, not Slack. It goes a long way.
9 - Gift cards
This is an oldie but a goodie. It is an extrinsic reward, yes, in that it has a monetary value, but it’s less of an extrinsic reward than a bonus. The most common are probably small business gift cards (local shops around HQ area) or Amazon/Starbucks gift cards. Do a mix of these for tenure, performance, other employees shouting them out, etc.
10 - Free food
Who doesn’t like this? Bring in pizza or kolaches periodically. Have different departments or divisions cater Friday morning breakfasts out of their budget.
11 - Skype and Zoom happy hours
Thursday/Friday around 4pm. Bring a beverage of choice. Maybe have a background contest or costume contest or toss some other context in there to make it fun. When we’re back to the office, whenever exactly that is, we can do some of these in-person as well.
12 - Careers/culture website page
Some companies bake this into their Careers page, and some make it a separate page. Either is fine, but your website should have a way to showcase your culture. Party pics, working pics, fun pics, bonding pics, examples of projects completed, examples of clients being happy (testimonials), etc. Showcase that it’s a great place to work and purposeful, cool stuff gets done. This makes the employees feel pride in your joint, but it also makes new clients, potential employees, and current customers feel appreciated. A four-way win is always nice.
13 - Acknowledge the anniversaries
Not doing this is actually a big, but little-discussed, factor in turnover.
14 - Field Day or Color Day
Let employees go against each other in non-work activities like bagel tossing, pony horse-riding, relay races, scooters, etc. It makes them feel like it’s not all about the work. If you work virtually, you can invite employees to a shared game room (video games, old-school Atari stuff) and have them compete either individually or in teams that way. This is more culture-building than strict employee appreciation, but it helps employees feel part of something bigger than just tasks. And team bonding is a crucial ingredient in helping your team members feel fulfilled by their work.
15 - Help with the commute/parking
Pay for bus, train, parking fees, etc.
16 - Allow for work-from-home
This is the “new normal” right now for everyone, but as areas of the world emerge and more people do return to office contexts, some will definitely be freaked out by COVID-19 for a long while. Allow them the flexibility to work from home so long as processes, protocols, and their own technology connectivity are all made clear up front.
17 - Mentorship
Easy to argue, unfortunately, that assigned mentorship is mostly a dead concept. You can, however, create a culture of mentorship in your organization. Here’s a road map. Providing mentors, especially to younger employees, makes them feel appreciated and like there’s a “guiding hand” to their career.
18 - Shout-outs on LinkedIn:
A lot of companies use their branded, business LinkedIn page pretty poorly — they mostly just post job openings there. While that’s necessary and helpful with millions laid off, the reality is a bunch of postings doesn’t tell you anything about the place’s culture. So why not shout out employees on there weekly with a fun fact, a fun picture, or whatever else?
I once went to a local LinkedIn event and no one under the age of 33 seemed to remember their password (you needed to log-in to LinkedIn to attend the event), so maybe this would be a good way to encourage some of your younger people to get out there and share that employer brand.
19 - Group volunteering
… and let people pick causes each month. It empowers employees to expose their colleagues to issues of importance for them, and makes people feel appreciated.
20 - Dogs
Control this situation a little bit -- we went to an event at Glassdoor once where 600+ dogs were present, and that was a bit overwhelming, to be sure. In controlled quantities, though, being able to show off your dog (your best friend, right?) will make employees feel connected to the work and appreciated by the -- wait for it -- top dogs.
21 - Swag
Basic, and then when an employee is out and about at a street festival rocking your Koozie, the brand becomes a topic of conversation. People feel appreciated when they get free stuff.
22 - Accountants
Taxes are confusing and no one really likes paying them. Ever seen this cartoon?
Bring in accountants to help your squad with their own taxes. Don’t make them go figure it out on their own.
23 - Food trucks
Who doesn't like free food? We said this before, but it bears repeating at least once.
24 - Scavenger Hunt
We worked at a place once that did this during Halloween week, in costume, in a bar-heavy area. It was … well, fun. That’s not possible right now, but perhaps an Internet scavenger hunt where you need to find facts and figures, celebrity gossip, etc.
For example: what is the highest number of points that Christian Laettner ever scored in a professional basketball game? Hang tight. We will have the answer in a second.
25 - Boss for a day
This can be cheeky in execution, but maybe allow someone to run an all-hands meeting or change a process, etc.
26 - Let employees shape the strategy
Wait, what? Isn’t that what the top tiers do? Well, yes. But the New York Public Library opened up a couple of projects to every employee and let them drive the strategy, and it had a huge impact on appreciation, respect, trust, engagement, the employee experience, and turnover.
27 - Smile at people. Say hello in the mornings.
This might matter even more if you’re in a leadership role. Not doing that as a leader can make employees feel like you’re “absentee,” and absentee leaders have been called “the silent killer of companies.” In reality, much of the human condition is based on reciprocity – if you smile or wave to someone on the street while walking your dog, you expect something in return. Work should be no different.
28 - Oh, were you waiting for that Christian Laettner stat?
He scored 37 points in a Hawks-Bulls game the day after Christmas 1996. See, that’s a digital scavenger hunt item!
29 - Move the ownership of “appreciation” from HR
It seems like a logical place for it because appreciation is a “people concept,” but … HR is also the department, in many orgs, that fires people and generally polices their behavior at work. Having the same department responsible for firing someone and appreciating someone can draw some potentially confusing lines.
23 - Use a simple recognition chart for each employee (again, personalize it all!)
Here’s an example:
Or, an even easier (and more accurate) way to do this would be to have your team take the F4S assessment, then you can just hop into the app as needed to see what makes everyone tick.
24 - Pay for the gym
There are different ways you can do this: pay for any upfront fees that a gym has. Pay for a percentage of the monthly fee. Pay for group classes with employees 2x/month. You have options as the employer.
25 - Masseuse/manicurist visit
This cannot be done remotely, but you can provide a gift card to such services in the employee’s local area for when those types of things reopen broadly.
26 - Summer Fridays
Less professional dress (jeans, “Zuck” attire), and maybe even an outdoor picnic if possible. This can be done remotely. It’s a little less fun remotely to see a block of cheese through a Zoom lens, but it can be done.
27 - Dance parties
Can feel a little forced virtually, sure, but anyone remember the It’s Always Sunny episode with the dance party? It’s one of the best ever.
Do this over Zoom, encourage employees to go on an IG Live dance party, or whatever else. When we can congregate in-person, absolutely do this. 80s dance night, y’all.
28 - Prize tokens, tickets
To local venues, or fake money designed to be redeemed for days off or whatever else. This is a tricky one to narrate because providing fake money can seem like a childish play if salaries aren’t competitive at your org, but the notion of “work to accrue the potential of more perks” does have merit as an employee appreciation idea.
29 - Hackathon
A good way to appreciate your DEV and technical talent, while also exposing others in the company to that talent and way of thinking.
30 - Foster a discussion, Part 1
There are some amazing TED Talks out there about employee appreciation ideas and general employee recognition, including Dan Ariely, Laura Trice, Mike Robbins, and more. Send these around to your staff and then convene a discussion on what they feel is good appreciation and recognition.
31 - Foster a discussion, Part 2
Gregg Popovich, who has won multiple championships coaching the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, sometimes brings his players in after a loss and sits them down in front of … a documentary, so they can discuss the ideas within it. That’s much more powerful than just going over game tape, makes the players feel appreciated, makes them feel intelligent and empowered, etc. Work does not always need to be about tasks.
32 - Baby wall
Showcase the children of employees on a wall in the office or a virtual subsite/Slack/comms channel.
33 - “New People Features”
This is the idea that we focus a lot at work on new product features, i.e. launches and rollouts and upgrades, but we need to focus more on new people features, i.e. marriages and children and even divorces. We need to treat our people as our greatest asset, rather than saying we do. That’s the ultimate in appreciation, right?
34 - Flowers
Traditionalists might argue that this works better for women, but men can appreciate polychromatic beauty too.
35 - Singing telegram
Saw this come into an office once for a top sales performer, and everyone else gathered around to watch the hysteria. It’s better in-person, but maybe there could be a “Zoom Bomb” context to the remote realm of this.
36 - Stop thinking appreciation is something above-and-beyond or something that needs to be scheduled
In one study, 60% of managers said they “didn’t have the time” to respect or appreciate their employees. We know managers get busy, but. That’s not acceptable. Shift your thinking.
37 - Care
Above all else, care. These are the people who work on your products and widgets and services and make them better and deliver for clients. Care about them, and show them that as much across a week as you can. That’s appreciation. That’s all a lot of employees are looking for (and, yes, fair compensation).
The bottom line
Employee appreciation ideas are often not that hard, or that costly, to implement. We put a lot of biases and blockers in the way, such as “It’s their job, why should I reward them?” or “I will appreciate them at review time.”
Until employee appreciation ideas are a major part of your culture and employee appreciation and recognition is something that happens both consistently and organically, the idea won’t bear fruit as a strategy. Once it does, you can reduce turnover, increase engagement, keep core knowledge in-house, and overall have a good place to report to or log-in to every day. And in some ways, that’s a reward in itself.